Summer Reading, 2019

Last week I was reading a book written in 2010. It was, in many ways, a lovely book. In 2010, I might have found it rather compelling. It is about the aftermath of a tragic car accident in a small town in Maine, in which a bride and groom are killed on the short trip from their wedding ceremony to their reception. It is about how that event rippled into and through the lives of each of their family members.

Last week, though, I found it hard to care much about their career and marital crises, the permutations of their grief. One of the families is Jewish, and one of their members a Holocaust survivor. In the other family, a young Cambodian girl is an adopted daughter. The mother of the bride is a wealthy academic who lives in the town only during the summers; the mother of the groom cleans her house and scrapes by during the winters.

This book could be about so many things–and it is, tangentially–but what it’s really about is the grief of people who are living in America in the early 2000s, in which such issues as class difference, discrimination, trauma survival, and inter-cultural adoption are, seemingly, mostly tangential. At least to the narrator, and most of the characters. While those issues were present in the story, politics was not. No one was worried about modern-day detention camps. There were no suggestions that any of the characters should be sent back to anywhere. There was no homelessness or opioid addiction.

It felt like reading historical fiction. It felt like visiting a time and place that’s gone.

*

Apparently, the Federal Elections Commission, the federal agency that oversees compliance with election laws, is, for the foreseeable future, a moribund entity. In a week of terrible news (which means, a week not unlike most), this item chilled me. In order to keep functioning–go to work, feed myself, pay the bills, take care of what is mine to take care of–I have become largely numb to stories that once would have shocked and horrified me. Stories about harm to people and the planet. I am still horrified, but not shocked, and I quickly set my horror aside because if I do not I will not be able to function.

I shared the news on Facebook, something I rarely do with news any more (figuring that those who care already know and that those who do not care or cannot cope do not need me to share), but I shared it because I could not put that horror away as quickly as I usually do. Because I understood in the moment of experiencing it just how much I am hoping for a regime change in 2020. Because I understood that, increasingly, voting is the only power I feel I have, we have, and if that system is corrupt with nothing left to check the corruption, then that hope is gone. I understood how much I need that hope to function. And then, understanding that those who care already know and that those who don’t or cannot cope do not need me to share, I deleted it.

*

This spring Laura Mary Philpott published a book of essays called I Miss You When I Blink. I bought it because it was all over my social media feed and recommended by people I like and I loved one of the essays that I read from it. It is the kind of book I might write, if I were going to write a book. It is the memoir of a middle-aged white woman who has children and a decent husband and good marriage and economic security in America and, still (because she is human), encounters some difficulties being OK in her life. (It is not exactly a book I could write, not having had good marriages or the same kind of economic security, but, you know. Close enough.)

But as I was reading it, I thought: Huh. This doesn’t seem terribly relevant right now. I enjoyed it well enough, but I live in a small house with limited bookshelf space and so I donated it to a charity soon after reading it.

When I read it, I also thought: This is why I’m not writing. I just don’t see how I can have much that is important to say during this time we are living through. This is a book by and about and for people like me, and even I just don’t care that much about the existential crises of this writer, who seems like a truly lovely person I could likely be friends with. (She seems very nice and funny and thoughtful, but there’s an edge. All the people I love best have an edge.) I’m sure I would have cared more in 2010, or even 2015 (if 2015 hadn’t been a truly awful year for me personally), but today, in 2019? Not so much.

*

We recently had dinner with friends C. and T., and we realized we hadn’t seen each other since the Women’s March in 2017, which feels like years and years ago. I remember that along with the fear we carried that day, we also carried tremendous hope and even some joy. Look at all of us in the streets! Look at all our pink hats! Surely it can’t get that bad. Surely our systems will protect us! Surely we are all still Americans, this is still America!

In 2017, C. and T.’s Jewishness was tangential to our common story. I mean, it was an important fact. That C.’s parents were Holocaust survivors was an important fact. But it was not important to me in the way it is now, in 2019, and that’s not just because I’m not nearly as colorblind now as I once was (in, say 2010). Other facts–all the things we have in common, our shared interests and worries and values and hopes–were at the core of our mutual affection and regard.

As we sat after our lovely meal in 2019 drinking coffee and tea and eating delicious chocolate, I found myself thinking of Germany in the 1930s. I looked at my beautiful, lovely friends, he with his deep laugh and she with her expressive hands and gentle voice, and all the Holocaust stories I inhaled as a child–for they were, it seemed, everywhere if you were a child who read books in the 1970s–were instantly real in a way they had never been before. I lost my breath, disoriented, imagining the friends in my living room packed into a cattle car. I could not comprehend how such a thing could be possible, could hardly contain the horrors of it in my mind. The two horrors, which are not commensurate, but which are both terrible: That my friends could be packed into a cattle car and that I could have that thought about them at the end of our lovely dinner together because of the things happening now, here. I have never had such thoughts in the presence of Jewish friends at any other time in my life. Not, at least, in the same way I had them that night. And yet, my friends, if they had been alive in that time and in that place, they could have been on those trains, and for the first time in my life, instead of just understanding the horror of it, I truly felt it. And still, my mind went to: It’s not possible. Even as I know it is.

Was this how it was then, in mid-1930s Germany, for friends having dinner together? Of course, the cattle cars hadn’t yet started, none of what would follow had happened yet, so those earlier people could be forgiven in a way that we cannot for not knowing sooner the horror they were living in and through. I thought about how history repeats itself, but never in exactly the same way, which allows some of us to make the kinds of rationalizations we make for what is happening to people at our southern border. I know that many Germans, Jews and not-Jews, told themselves, even as the water approached boiling, Surely this is still Germany. We are still Germans.

Later, alone in the kitchen with T., she told me that C. is worried. Talked about wanting to leave. I felt the same disorientation, thought again of the books I once read, of how, when I was young, it was so hard for me to understand those Jews who didn’t leave when they could. The signs, in hindsight, were so clear. Now that I am not young, I understand all it would mean to leave a whole life and start over in a new place. I understand the barriers that one would have to overcome. I understand how it doesn’t feel real, the idea that the foundation upon which you’ve built that whole life–a foundation so seemingly sound you hardly realized it was there–could be crumbling.

But what I think and feel and understand from that evening feels inconsequential, tangential to the bigger story of what is happening all around me.

*

I recently also read There, There, Native writer Tommy Orange’s novel of the modern-day urban Indian experience. It was everywhere when it was published in 2018, all over my social media feeds for a while.

I picked it up and started it, but then I put it down and then it was due at the library, and I returned it without finishing it. I wanted my reading to be an escape. I still do. I felt like a shallow, weak person for turning away from it, but I did it anyway.

But this month I was working with teachers who are going to be assigning it to their students this year, and it is the Multnomah County Library’s Everybody Reads title for this year. So, I listened to the audiobook version of it. I listen to audiobooks in the car now. Not the news. Not even music. I consume the news in small, controlled doses now, mostly from print sources, and music does not occupy my mind enough when I’m driving. I don’t know if my inability to tolerate the space that opens up in my mind while driving is because technology has rewired my brain or because I cannot stand the questions my mind cannot leave alone these days. Probably both.

So, it was both escape and not escape, that book. It was gorgeous and heartbreaking and compelling and important. If it were a physical object in my house, I would make space for it on my bookshelf.

One of the characters, questioning what it means to be Native now, says: “I feel bad sometimes even saying I’m Native. Mostly I just feel I’m from Oakland.”

Another, reflecting upon his ancestry that is both white and Native, thinks:

“You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You were both and neither. When you took baths, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.”

Sometimes I feel I lived through a time in which most of us could, regardless of our history, mostly feel we were just from whatever city it is we called home. A time in which most of us, regardless of when and how we got here, felt ourselves both: part one thing and part something else. I used to think that was fundamental to what it means to be American. I don’t know, though, if that feeling is a sign of ignorance born of privilege or if it is true that we are now in a different time. Maybe we (Americans) are not losing anything now. I mean, I know that many, many Americans are losing a great deal right now. Maybe when I write “we” I mean people mostly like me. Maybe the only things we are losing are our illusions. I don’t know. There’s so much I don’t know now.

I miss feeling sure of things. When I try to define what it means to be American now, there is no there, there.

*

My daughter is making plans to move to Sweden, at least temporarily. I have been learning Swedish with Duolingo. I have been reading Swedish writers. I have been cooking recipes from Scandinavian cookbooks.

Yes, she had a wonderful experience with a study abroad semester, but it would be wrong to think that she is being swayed by some utopian fairy tale. She is a serious person. She was born serious. In the NICU, she was different from the other babies. She stared at everything, intently. “That’s really unusual,” one of the nurses told me. “The sensory stimulation is too much for most preemies. They look away. But she looks right into your eyes, all the time.” My mother told me, when my daughter was only days old, that she has an old soul. She has always made connections that others don’t, has seen beneath the surface of things. She has always been a careful planner. She loves a color-coded spreadsheet. She is pragmatic.

She came home for a visit in June. It was wonderful. As always, it was in being with her that I felt how much I miss her when she’s gone, how much I keep those feelings at bay in her absence. I am a person who connects deeply with only a few others, and she is one of my people.

After the visit this June, I understood in a new way that she no longer lives with me. I understood that she is likely not coming back here. I understood that she needs to decide where and how she can make the best life for herself. I understood why she feels that might not be here. I understood that here might not actually be the best place for her. I felt bereft in a way I have not felt since the day she left for college, and in exactly the same way: So grateful for the opportunities she has, and devastated that they cannot be here, where I am, and guilty for feeling anything other than happy for her. And also: Devastated that I cannot make the case that she could have a better life here. I mean, I know that, perhaps, she could. But it doesn’t look that way right now, in 2019. Especially if you are young.

“You know the joke about how to tell a Millennial from a Gen Z, right?” she asks me.

I don’t, I tell her.

“Millennials are the generation who grew up believing they’d have all the opportunities their parents had, and now they’re bitter because they’ve lost hope. Gen Z never had it.”

#funnynotfunny

*

In a shop selling vintage wares, I found a book called Journalism and the School Paper, published in 1958. Of course, I had to read the section on the future of media, where I found this:

In the first half of the twentieth century the ideal of democracy was challenged by the philosophy of dictatorship. In the military struggle the democratic countries overcame the dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini. In these years of the “cold war” the democracies likewise give evidence of being more flexible and durable than dictatorships. Democracy, however, could crumble through weaknesses from within as readily as from outside attacks. In communities where less than half the eligible voters turn out for an election, democracy is threatened.

The survival of democracy rests upon the free flow of information and exchange of opinion. Even in the United States, newsmen and newswomen have to be on guard against forces that would close the doors of information. Skill in writing and presentation will be required to show the relationship of various currents of news to the fundamentals of democratic life. For those whose talents fit them for a career in journalism, the opportunity is a challenging one.

*

Last week, Mary Laura Philpott published an essay in the New York Times called “The Great Fortune of Ordinary Sadness.” If it were a book, I would keep it on my shelf. I would put it next to There, There.

In it, she acknowledges the sadness she feels over the ending of her children’s childhoods, the ending of family life as they’ve always lived it, and she acknowledges the privilege inherent in such sadness, living in such a time as we are. When she describes feeling weepy in the grocery store, I recall my own episode of produce-driven tears, and for the first time I am grateful that I was able to experience it in 2016, when things were already bad, but not the kind of dumpster-fire bad they are now. I am grateful that I could feel it in a time when it felt OK to call it a big grief, rather than now, when it feels like it can only be, as Philpott writes, a “tiny, self-indulgent grief.”

But that is not why I would put the book on my shelf. It is for her closing words, the ones that let me know we really could be friends. The ones that made me think there might be some point to writing such as hers, and mine here:

And if you, too, are thinking “I thought I had more time” for any reason — a loss large or small or so eclipsed by refracted rays of joy that you’re ashamed to call it a loss at all — come cry quietly by the fruit with me.

We don’t even have to talk, unless … well, would you mind telling me to turn my oven off? It’s so easy to miss the moment when things begin to burn.

It is, isn’t it? So easy to miss the moment when things begin to burn. So important to have friends who remind us that the stove is on.

23 thoughts on “Summer Reading, 2019

  1. Christine corbley says:

    Always impressed by the eloquence of your words. Thought provoking and from a very personal place. Threading the world with your own reality provides a context often forgotten in a time when we most need to reflect and take action. Thank yoy for putting in to words what many feel but do not know how to say.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Christine. I have thought often recently of the class you and I once sat in together, Mr. Czubin’s 20th Century Europe. Isn’t it amazing that now people deny what happened there? So much that in Oregon we just passed legislation requiring teaching of the Holocaust as fact. Feels a little like closing the barn door after the animals have escaped. I wish I knew what the best actions to take are.

  2. Kathy says:

    Yep.
    This feels like a bad response to your very eloquent post but that’s how I feel.
    Yep to all of it. I had a similar reaction to “I Miss You When I Blink.” and “There, There was a difficult read.

    And is it bad that I feel jealous that you might have a way to escape?
    My husband and I, back when we were in college in the middle 80’s were walking back from the grocery store – the university bus system wasn’t running yet as it was still summer. We had a long walk ahead of us. He put the big Jay’s potato chip box under his shirt to free up his hands to carry more paper grocery bags.

    Somehow, on that walk, we decided we should move to Sweden. Good health care system and everyone drove a Volvo. Of course we didn’t do it, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t think more and more about not taking ourselves seriously back then.

    • Rita says:

      Feelings just are. No judgement from me. But to be clear, it’s my daughter who is hoping to move, at least temporarily. Even if it were possible for me, I am far too rooted here. I had similar thoughts in the 80s myself. I don’t regret my choice, though. Not yet, anyway.

  3. Skye Leslie says:

    You speak for me. I resonate with your voice. I can barely read or listen to the news anymore – except from select sources.

    Reading your write – I felt more compelled by it than anything since the “women’s march,” to shed the shroud of protection I’ve built around me – to start knocking on doors with the single statement/query – “it’s burning! do you understand it’s all really burning.”

    • Rita says:

      Oh, Skye. I miss you. I was thinking of you just the other day (I don’t know what brought you to mind), and I wondered how you are doing–how your new life is unfolding. I am so glad to hear from you. How I wish we could sit together somewhere with a warm cup of something and talk about all that is happening. Sending you love–

  4. Marian says:

    I just watched my youngest get on the school bus for his first day of high school, and I know, from past experience, that I’ll blink and four years will be gone…so yes, I’m right there with you with my self-indulgent weeping.

    I have so many thoughts on what you’ve written, and to do your post justice I should probably just write a blog post in response. Of course I can’t, because I’m stuck, because I’m right there with you on why should I write and who am I to think what I say matters? (And as it turns out I can barely squeeze out a comment, because yes, I just deleted a paragraph I spent half an hour writing.)

    For the past four months or so I’ve been editing/rewriting my FIL’s memoir. He was born to Austrian nationals in Poland in 1937, and in 1945 he and his older brother and mother (his father had died in 1942) had to hightail it out of Poland to avoid being captured by either the Polish or Russian army, a fate that my own father—the same age and a German national living in a similar place and under similar circumstances—did not avoid. My thoughts and emotions, as I’ve worked on this project, have been all over the place, and—probably because many climate activists are calling for a WWII-like mobilization, and because what’s happening on the US border is so chilling—I’m seeing the preface to war and the loss of civilization everywhere, so much so that it feels as though I am pre-emptively grieving the loss of, well, everything. But sadly, if the shoe is finally dropping, it’s not coming as a surprise to me—it always WAS going to drop; it was just a matter of time. And there mostly isn’t, for me, a sense of missing the days when I didn’t see weeping over a child going off to high school or to university or to Sweden as a self-indulgence. When you’re raised by parents who have experienced war and near-starvation first-hand, you learn early on that pretty much anything you—a child being raised with sufficient food, shelter, and clothing in 70s working-class Canada—might feel about any hopes and dreams or troubles will of course be labeled as self-indulgent.

    On Millennials versus Gen Z and hope: My heart aches for my Gen Z children. As a Gen X, I find myself alternating between anger and envy toward Boomers and the older generations. Anger that so many of them are hell-bent on believing they deserve to continue on with their unsustainable lifestyles, and envy that they got to live most of their lives believing that hopes and dreams were their birthright, that they could do anything and be anything, that the world was their oyster. My current read is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, published in 1994. I wish I had read it in 1994, when I was trying to unearth myself from my childhood, when I was just trying on the idea that I could have hopes and dreams. It feels like an indulgence to be reading it now, when there’s so much work to be done, and yet I still believe in the power of story: it’s escape (which is sanity-saving, IMO, AND a low-carbon way to travel, haha?), it’s inspiration, it’s connection, and it IS what makes us human. I quite desperately want others to keep writing, even while knowing I can’t (and likely never could have).

    • Marian says:

      I forgot to say: No one wants to be told the stove is on, and those of us who are trying to say it are often being bullied into silence. We’re being told that we’re killjoys for wanting to turn off the stove, we’re being fed false solutions to stoves being left on, we’re being told we’re hysterical, we’re being told that it’s virtue signalling to point to lit stoves, or that it’s a privilege to be able to see that the stove is on. This is a huge part of the problem, IMO, and it’s really no surprise that many of us are unable to write (or speak, for that matter).

      • Rita says:

        Marian,
        Please read this: https://lithub.com/rebecca-solnit-progress-is-not-inevitable-it-takes-work/

        I know you doubt the importance of your words, so much that they’ve become stopped up inside of you. But your words caused shifts in me with regard to the environment and climate change. You got me to pay attention to that issue, in particular, in a different way. And it wasn’t the first time you wrote about it, or even the second. I don’t honestly know when I began paying attention in a truly different way, but it was because you kept telling me, over and over and over again, that that particular stove is on. And because of others, too. The power is in our collective voice, something it can be easy for me to forget. I supposed it’s part of why I keep writing here, for the small audience/community that is here. And why I hope you will continue to write in your space, too. Ideas ripple. We can’t see how far they travel. Community exists in different forms. Sometimes it is a physical space, but sometimes it is a virtual one. Because of the ways in which you spoke about environmental issues, I now sometimes speak about them to others. I sometimes elevate the voices of others who are also speaking. You said it yourself above, about the power of story. The story you’ve told here, about your fathers, is powerful. It has me thinking again about an idea that keeps coming around in my head about the generational impacts of trauma. I don’t have anything to say about that right now, today, but I might in the future, and this small exchange we’ve had here will be part of what informs that. It all matters.

          • Marian says:

            This means the world to me. Thank you, Rita and Kate. You’ve both given me a lot to think about with this post and this discussion.
            xo Marian

        • TD says:

          Rita, Thank you for sharing this link on your blog. I’m just now getting the time to read it. Had it not been for your post and contributed comments, I would not have come across it in my readings. The ripple affects as you referred; shared thoughts is how some of us learn. I appreciate you and the others who have taken the time of thought, consideration and commitments.

    • Kate says:

      Yes!!! To the anger and the envy!! My mom (who is a tail end boomer married to smack in the middle boomer) and I just had a huge discussion about this because after my most recent post she shared this (quite snarky) thing about how her generation WAS green – reusing soda bottles, and hanging clothes out on the line – and I was having none of it. (I’m part because I happened to be raised by her and know better). The sheer ENTITLEMENT is EXHAUSTING. And they get worse as they age!!!! (My favorite is when they talk about the entitlement of Millennials.)

      I haven’t decided if it’s worse talking to Boomers who have lived a majority of their lives with opportunity or Christians who honestly think God is going to come back and save us from the mess we’ve made of things.

      Finally…and maybe this is the last 3 years of therapy talking…weeping over our children leaving (or growing) or all the little things…not self indulgent. Is the world going to hell in a handbasket? Probably. And if that’s the case, why wouldn’t we grieve the comfort of being able to care for and show love to our people on the day in and the day out?!? What a comfort to lose – being the daily foundation in a world without one. I think we’d be crazy NOT to grieve that.

        • Rita says:

          So much in this thread to respond to. Technically, I am a Boomer, but I’ve never identified as one and have long resented them. I was born in December 1964; two weeks later and I wouldn’t be one. But, like them, I did grow up believing that hopes and dreams were my birthright. To a large extent, I have enjoyed the benefits they enjoyed. I feel guilty that those who followed me haven’t had that and angry that they haven’t. They could, but we all started losing our minds and our way with Ronald Reagan in the 80s (who is the reason I became a teacher).

          Marian, I wish you could find a way to write. You have so much to say. But I understand, because I am having a hard time getting out all the thoughts I have in response to what both of you have written here. I know it’s not likely to happen, but I sure do wish the three of us could meet somewhere in the middle, just once, and have a nice, long talk over many cups of tea. I’m so grateful for both of you and our conversations. Especially now. I need people who are OK with me talking about the stove. I post a photo on FB of a s’more and I get lots of likes and comments, but when I share anything about the stove…well, the response is growing more and more quiet. I’m not quite sure what to make of that. It could mean different things. I don’t think it means that people aren’t aware, though.

          And Kate, yes to listening to and amplifying the voice of WOC. If anyone knows about how to get through unthinkable horrors, it is them. If anyone understands what is happening now, it is them.

          • Kate says:

            I am so, so, so grateful for you two. It *would* be so lovely to have many cups of tea and a good long chat. I know I’ll probably never see you IRL, but I like knowing that you are out there and that I can find you and we can talk about these things.

            We really did hit the rails in the 80’s, didn’t we? Big hair, greed is good, more is more. I was just a kid but I do NOT understand that decade.

      • Marian says:

        “Is the world going to hell in a handbasket? Probably. And if that’s the case, why wouldn’t we grieve the comfort of being able to care for and show love to our people on the day in and the day out?!? What a comfort to lose – being the daily foundation in a world without one. I think we’d be crazy NOT to grieve that.”
        This really hits home for me, Kate. We truly are living in a messed-up world, aren’t we?

  5. TD says:

    Rita, I appreciate you for taking the time and energy to publish this wonderfully written essay that is all tied together. Your words matter! Thank you. TD

  6. Kate says:

    As always, I appreciate your posts.

    I appreciate not feeling alone.

    I, too, don’t do the news anymore. I read one trusted newspaper a week. It’s enough.

    I do, however, follow a lot of WOC now on social media. They aren’t shocked. They aren’t surprised. The resilience and joy and hope I see (in tandem with their anger) gives me hope that we can overcome and adapt and do better. (Particularly if we get out of the way and signal boost their voices.)

  7. Laura Millsaps says:

    This is probably why my own blog writing has veered so wildly from biblical pontification to garden composting. I don’t know what in the compound hell (as my dad likes to say) I’m doing. I don’t know what’s important anymore– what private, ordinary troubles I’m “allowed” to have in the context of these times. I know that many of us are cautious about our relative privilege while others suffer profound traumas. But can we make a distinction between that and allowing ourselves the fundamental griefs and joys that humans have simply through living? I don’t know the answer to that question, and I have this feeling there’s no good one. Like many others, I feel like my personal milestones are irrelevant to the greater struggle going on. On the other hand, I feel strongly that if we let them silence our humanity wherever it is found, the shadows grow a little longer. Just as in an abusive relationship, there’s only room for the abuser’s anger, and so everyone walks on eggshells, ceding more and more emotional territory to to the person who can only respond with demands for still more. It doesn’t work there, and I get this gut sense it will not work here, either. I want to believe the empathy we have for ourselves is not weighed against the empathy we have for others. It’s just that my conscience continues to struggle with how to balance it wisely. I’m glad to see in this thread that I’m not alone.

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